Even if he was just saying the right thing, LeSean McCoy showed maturity beyond his years by expressing a willingness to share carries with LaRod Stephens-Howling.
McCoy’s attitude has made a strong impression on Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, who named the freshman from Harrisburg Pitt’s starting tailback against Virginia.
“He works as hard, with as good an attitude, as anybody on this field,” Wannstedt said. “He’s great that way. For a freshman, he doesn’t talk and act like a freshman. That’s what gives him a chance to play. He’s a lot more mature. He’s been exposed to a few more things, I think, because of his brother (LeRon) playing. All of that helps in the development of maturity in a young player.”
Much was made of McCoy’s immaturity during the recruiting process, especially when he announced a verbal commitment to Miami on signing day while at Milford Academy because he was academically ineligible.
That was almost two years ago, after McCoy’s senior season ended with a compound fracture of his right ankle and his academics became an issue. Maybe McCoy has been humbled by the process. Or maybe it was blown out of proportion.
“You go from one of the top backs in the country to being in a prep school, coming off a broken (ankle). You’ve got to be a special guy to have a great attitude every day, going through that,” Wannstedt said. “I never sensed, never heard from any of his coaches at the prep school or the high school about his attitude.”
• Speaking of attitudes, tailback LaRod Stephens-Howling has handled his demotion from the starting lineup well enough to have been named one of Pitt’s tri-captains for the Virginia game.
Wannstedt said the Panthers’ captains are based on “if they’re playing solid and doing all the things in practice and watching extra tapes, things that demonstrate some form of leadership.”
• The other captains also are juniors: safety Eric Thatcher (defense) and receiver Austin Ransom (special teams). It’s the second time Ransom has been rewarded for his all-out play; he was placed on scholarship in August.
“It’s amazing when somebody comes on and contributes, and earns a scholarship as a walk-on,” Wannstedt said. “Some people, when they get rewarded get complacent; other people, when they get rewarded take it to another level and really start believing how good they can be. That’s what Austin did. He’s been very good in all our special teams.”
Wannstedt called Ransom “smart” and “tough,” but it was the latter trait that stood out when he unloaded on a Connecticut player with a hit that allowed the Panthers to recover Cody Sawhill’s onside kick in the fourth quarter.
“He made a key block, obviously, on the onside kick,” Wannstedt said of Ransom. “The only chance we have to recover that thing is if he blocks his man. It’s one of those blocks where you’re running from about 15 yards away, so there’s some contact. You’ve got to have a tough guy, but you’ve also got to have an athlete that won’t miss.”
• The Panthers have 12 turnovers this season (eight interceptions and four fumbles), and turnovers have contributed greatly to their past two losses.
So much so that Wannstedt believes Pitt would be undefeated if it had better protected the football.
“If we don’t turn the ball over – and this is a head coach talking to his team, but I don’t think it’s being naïve – we could be 4-0 right now, with playing the freshman quarterbacks,” Wannstedt said. “There were six of them (against UConn) and they were all by freshmen. They have to be involved and they will, but we’ve got to get out and play a game where we protect the football, make a few plays and find a way to win a game. I think that will do wonders for our confidence. And that’s what we need right now, as a team.”
Of Pitt’s 32 penalties, 20 were against the offense and four were personal fouls. Disturbingly, two were by fifth-year seniors (cornerback Kennard Cox and center Chris Vangas), one by a redshirt junior (receiver Marcel Pestano) and one by a true junior (nose tackle Rashaad Duncan).
It’s one thing for freshmen to fumble or throw interceptions, but another for upperclassmen to be involved in senseless and costly penalties.
“They’re dumb. There’s no such thing as a good personal foul, unless a guy is making a block,” Wannstedt said. “The ones we had, they intercept it and our receiver thinks the guy is going to take him out so he hits him – go make a tackle – before he gets a chance to block him. That was dumb, a foolish mistake. The other one, against Grambling, the guy pushes (Duncan) and he turns around and pushes back. It’s always the second guy. We get the foul. Foolish.”
Wannstedt doesn’t believe the number of personal-foul penalties has been more than any other team, but believes every flag is a setback.
“There’s no such thing as a small penalty,” Wannstedt said. “One of our penalties, it’s a no-snap, no-play thing. But it still counts in the number. One of them was a delay with LaRod last week, when he was the quarterback for a play for Wildcat. “Foolish personal fouls we cannot have, cannot tolerate.”
• Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh have been harshly criticized for not handing the ball to McCoy more than 11 times against UConn.
Wannstedt’s reasoning is that the Panthers were trailing the entire game, and that running the ball is no way to recover from a 10-point deficit.
“A lot of those carries with backs come when you have a lead and you’re running the ball at the end of the game,” Wannstedt said. “We just haven’t had that luxury. It’s tough when you’re trying to score points. We have a lot of talented guys standing with me on the sidelines. You can’t get the ball to all of them but, right now, dealing with the young quarterback situation, we’re handcuffed as far as what we can do. It may not seem half-way intelligent, but it is.”
Once again, Wannstedt cited his days of coaching Ricky Williams with the Miami Dolphins as an example of his willingness to hand the ball off to the extreme.
“We’re trying to give him the ball, but when you fall behind, it’s tough,” Wannstedt said. “I can remember games with Ricky Williams. I think we set an NFL record. We handed it to him 43 times in one game; I know we handed it to him 14 times in a row against Buffalo on a Sunday night game. Let him call the final play on the 2-yard line to beat ‘em.”
Receptions included, McCoy touched the ball 17 times against UConn for 86 yards total offense. It didn’t make much sense, considering he’d rushed for 172 yards on 25 carries a week earlier at Michigan State. What made less sense is that not only did McCoy not start the UConn game, he didn’t start the second half. By then, it was obvious that he was Pitt’s best offensive option.
• For the record, receiver Maurice Williams was the first true freshman to start for Pitt this season (against Grambling State). McCoy was the second (Michigan State) and quarterback Pat Bostick will be the third (Virginia).
Williams got his opportunity because of a designed play, taking a reverse on first down for a 15-yard loss. This week, he was listed on the depth chart for the first time.
“He’s really the third receiver at both spots, the flanker and split end,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve just stayed healthy there. We had the intent early in the year, when we played him in the first game, to work him in the lineup in certain roles.”
Wannstedt said the Panthers had some four-receiver packages that would have featured Williams, likely as a deep threat, but weren’t used because of the trouble at quarterback.
“He’s going to be a great player for us,” Wannstedt said. “He’s got as much talent, speed, eye-hand coordination as anybody we have on our roster. He’s not getting as much experience as I’d like, but … it will work itself out.”
• It might be only a matter of time before some other true freshmen crack the rotation or even the starting lineup. Defensive end Jabaal Sheard already is playing 10-15 snaps a game behind fifth-year senior Joe Clermond, and Dom DeCicco is the backup at free safety to Thatcher.
But, for now, they’re backups.
“I had a long discussion with Dom DeCicco. He is in an identical scenario as Mo. He’s on some special teams,” Wannstedt said. “No one’s gotten hurt. But when he came to camp he was, without a doubt, in our two-deep.
“I really think when these kids look at this, there’s two sides to this coin. The obvious is you redshirt him and he gets bigger and stronger. With the linemen, in most cases, that’s going to happen. Dom and Mo are not getting as much playing time, but they are in a position to help us.”
The other side of the coin for those who play as true freshman is that they have a redshirt year available in case of injury, ineligibility or suspension. Wannstedt mentioned senior receiver Derek Kinder, junior defensive tackle Gus Mustakas and sophomore safety Elijah Fields as three players who are benefiting from that scenario.
“It would be a crying shame if this was Derek Kinder’s last year. It may cost him an NFL career, I don’t know,” Wannstedt said. “That’s what I talked to Dom about: there’s two sides to this thing: You don’t know how it’s going to play out. We’re doing what we have to do to win, but we’re also being very sensitive to each player. They’ve just got to trust me on that.”
• Wannstedt doesn’t believe that the quarterback-center exchange will be an issue between Vangas and true freshman Pat Bostick, who is making his first start.
Bostick spent most of training camp taking snaps from fellow freshman Greg Gaskins and most of the season taking them from walk-on backup Alex Karabin, and has worked extensively with Vangas this week.
“They’ve worked extremely hard,” Wannstedt said. “We have gone out early and worked on the regular snap count. We’ve worked on the silent count, anticipating noise. We’ve had (simulated) noise at practice. We had officials. We’re doing all the things that you would do to give yourself a chance to make improvement.
“Now, it’s got to happen Saturday.”
The officials worked every practice this week, and Wannstedt said the Panthers were not called for one illegal procedure or off-sides penalty.
“It was 100 percent clean. If we can do it in practice, we’ve got to do it in a game,” Wannstedt said. “We’ve got to stay focused in a game. It’s not like things are happening in practice and we’re letting them go. That’s not the case, by any means. It never has been and never will be.”